Statements by W.B. Yeats and Others on His Beliefs and Writing

Yeats on the Question of Belief:

Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon -- what of those that fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our Era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.

Yeats and Politics:

On Yeats: His political prejudices, his study of history, his determinism, his sense of tragic doom all pointed in the same direction. He anticipated, with pitiless relish, a dispensation that 'obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical.' John Press.

Do not try to make a politician of me, even in Ireland I shall never I think be that again -- as my sense of reality deepens, and I think it does with age, my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater, and if I did what you want, I would seem to hold one form of government more responsible than any other, and that would betray my convictions. Communist, Fascist, nationalist, clerical, anti-clerical, are all responsible according to the number of their victims. I have not been silent; I have used the only vehicle I possess -- verse. If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called "The Second Coming." It was written some sixteen or seventeen years ago and foretold what is happening. I have written of the same thing again and again since... I am not callous, every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, 'the ceremony of innocence is drowned.'

Yeats on Writing:

...this is exactly what I am trying to do in writing, to express myself without waste, without emphasis. To be impassioned and yet to have a perfect self-possession, to have a precision so absolute that the slightest inflection of voice, the slightest rhythm of sound or emotion plucks the heart-strings.

I think the whole of our literature as well as our drama has grown effeminate through the over development of the picture-making faculty. The great thing in literature, above all in drama, is rhythm and movement.

The over childish or over pretty or feminine element in some good Wordsworth and in much poetry up to our date comes from the lack of natural momentum in the syntax.

All art is in the last analysis an endeavor to condense as out of the flying vapour of the word an image of human perfection, and for its own and not for the art's sake, and that is why the labour of the alchemists, who were called artists in their day, is a befitting comparison for all deliberate change of style. We live with images, that is our renunciation...choosing....to know all and say nothing.

I separate the rhythmical and the abstract. They are brothers but one is Abel and one is Cain. In poetry they are not confused for we know that poetry is rhythm, but in music-hall verses we find an abstract cadence, which is vulgar because it is apart from imitation. The cadence is a mechanism, it never suggests a voice shaken with joy or sorrow as poetical rhythm does. It is but the noise of a machine and not the coming and going of the breath.

There are moments when I am certain that art must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art the Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is empty and measured.

On Yeats' Language:

Mr. Yeats has once and for all stripped English poetry of its perdamnable rhetoric. He has boiled away all .that is not poetic -- and a  good deal that is...He has made our poetic idiom a thing pliable, a speech without inversions.
Ezra Pound, 1912.

Yeats on His own Life:

I had three interests: interests in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality...Now all three are, I think, one, or rather, all three are a discrete expression of a single conviction.

It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all in a phrase I say, 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.' I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence. 1939.

Science and Reality in Yeats:

(Of the belief that the universe is not material, but created by the action of the Deity on mind)
Such a doctrine, if the Deity be replaced by Anima Mundi, appeared to Yeats to give a philosophical justification for many of his beliefs -- for the immortality of the spirit world, the ancestral memories, the complexities of all the phenomena of sensation, the early experiments in magic; and -- though this sounds strange enough--to the description of "Nature or reality as known to poets or tramps ...which has no moment, no impression, no perception like another--everything is unique and nothing unique is measurable." Like Swift and Blake he attacked the abstraction of thought and the mechanization of man. "No educated man today accepts the objective matter and space of popular science, and yet deductions made by those who believed in both dominate the world... "

"Because these imaginary people are created out of the deepest instinct of man, to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to truth."...because only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair rouses the will to full intensity.

TOWARDS THE READING OF SOME POEMS BY YEATS

Sources: Richard Ellman, The Identity of Yeats
Richard Ellman, The Man and the Masks
T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats
John Press, A Map of Modern English Verse
Karl Shapiro, Prose Keys to Modern Poetry

"Two Songs From A Play"

1. These songs come from the play The Resurrection, in which the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ is treated as if it were a re-enactmentof the death and resurrection of Dionysus (the god of fertility and primitive energy, sexual and artistic). Dionysus, like Christ and Helen, was the child of a mortal and immortal, of Persephone and Zeus. The jealous wife of Zeus provoked the Titans to tear Dionysus to pieces, but Athena (goddess of wisdom) snatched his heart from his body and bore it on her hand to Zeus, who swallowed the heart and produced Dionysus afresh on another mortal woman. The "staring virgin" who tears the heart out of Dionysus and bears it away is therefore Athena, who is "staring" partially because she is acting in a trance and  performing what is foreordained. The Muses sing of Magnus Annus, that is, a new cycle of the great year of world history, because the ritual of the god's death and rebirth is the necessary beginning for a cycle; and if they see events as "but a play," it is because they know that these events will recur many times. (Ellman)

Dionysus represented to Yeats the object of primitive Greek worship, occurring during the cycle before Christ (2000 B.C. ); his religion is that of "a fabulous formless darkness" -- of ritual blood-sacrifices, mythology, and sexual violence. (The Roman equivalent of Dionysus is Bacchus, who degenerates into the god of wine; "baccanal" means drunken or orgiastic). The worship of Dionysus will parallel, of course, the worship of Christ in the next cycle. In other words, this stanza discusses the same cycle as does "Leda and the Swan" but on the basis of different events. The mythology came from Frazer's Golden Bough, still the foremost work on comparative mythology and religion, and one which influenced many other writers of the period besides Yeats, including T.S. Eliot.

2. Stanza Two proclaims the new cycle , with another civilization and another series of heroic and destructive acts. ("Another Troy must rise and set,/Another lineage feed the crow,/Another Argo's painted brow/Drive to a flashier bauble yet). In some respects it must be an even worse age since its heroes seek an even "flashier bauble." These lines paraphrase a Virgilian prophecy of the golden age , with the noticeable difference that Yeats refers not to a golden or culminating age but merely to another (wearisome?) cycle. In this next cycle "that fierce virgin and her Star" are Mary and Christ, with the emphasis on Christianity's relationship to Babylonian mystery and astrology cults and eastern religions. For example, Zoroastrianism, a religion founded about 600 B.C., contains in its sacred literature an account of the Magi and star announcing the divine birth. All these changes into a new cycle caused the decline of the Roman orderly imperium (historians of the time were interested in seeing a psychological or moral reason for Rome's decline). Remember that to Yeats Rome was analogous to Britain, so that the decay of Rome and the freeing of its colonies suggested the happy projection of Ireland separating from British influence in the next cycle.
 

Ellman adds that the "virgin" lines assert a parallelism between the three pairs, Astraea and Spica (Babylonian or Eastern), Athena and Dionysus(Greek), and Mary and Christ (Christian), who all merge into "that fierce virgin and her star." Yeats admired greatly the Greek culture which had flourished at the center of the past cycle, that post-Dionysian phase which produced the disciplined intelligence of Greek statuary  and civic life, thefirst "pinnacle" of recorded civilization.
 
Remember that in "Sailing to Byzantium" his ideal artificers are "Grecian goldsmiths." The elaborate Graeco-Roman culture is forced to yield before the turbulence which came out of Asia, that is, the elements of mystery and blood in Babylonian religion. Christianity is therefore formed by the fusion of east and west, the Greek rational tradition and the Eastern knowledge of the occult and miraculous.

Yeats' violent metaphors for Christianity can seem to express an overwhelming distaste. However, for him the occult and miraculous were in some sense "true," just as artifice and formalization expressed a polar truth.

3. Christ pitied the mental chaos of man and "walked that room" of the cycle in order to aid in the reestablishment of order; he was killed, and another period of violence begins. This part is unclear--! can't tell whether the ideas of Christ or merely his death extends turbulence into the new cycle, whether he is a martyr to or the precipitator of violence. A natural question is, Why is Christianity a violent religion? All I can suggest is that it operates according to paradoxes (god-man, spiritual-material, renunciation attainment), unites man inextricably to a spirit-world of ultimate charity and punishment, and in codified form has been the excuse for many of the divisions and wars of the next cycle. Also remember Christ's words, "I am come not to bring peace but a sword."

4. The last stanza connects imperfectly with the former ones. At first it talks, perhaps)about the difficulty of maintaining the stasis of (Platonic and Doric) tolerance and discipline which creates beauty--"Everything that man esteems,/ endures a moment or a day," The next four examples--of the lover, artist, herald, and soldier (four types frequently present in Yeats)--are of persons who consume their energies in creating or performing that which they most desire. Man is a fire, and his existence is both self-generating and self-destroying; his heart simultaneously creates and is consumed by passionate intensity. The fire is also a purifying process working on the original desires of man--as in "Sailing to Byzantium," the result of the burning of the human heart is a "holy fire." If the heart were not burnt it would be neither beautiful nor visible; also fire condenses man's experience into artistic or perceptive form, into the "golden bird" of art, or into an other "monument of unaging  intellect" (such as philosophy or a system of symbols), into a painting or heraldic cry, into the formal embodiment of a dream.

"The Second Coming"

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre"--"A line is a movement without extension, and so symbolical of time ... and a plane cutting it at right angles is symbolical of space or objectivity. Line and plane are combined in a gyre which must expand or contract according to whether mind grows in objectivity or subjectivity" (Yeats). As the mind becomes more subjective or concerned with its own self and perceptions, the gyre (cona) is widening, the center and the objective self become further separated. At the end and beginning of each cycle, the self is completely subjective; what would otherwise be the  objective self is at the farthest possible distance from human thought.

This clause therefore refers to the progressive widening of this distance before the ultimate return to mental chaos.

"The falcon cannot hear the falconer"--The large bird is a frequent symbol in Yeats of the solitary, self-sufficient, dispassionate, objective and rational man--his world is no longer possible. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." The word "loosed" is used twice, emphasizing the collapse of all mental and political restraints--the ceremony of innocence" or patterned tradition, which had formerly served to purge man from his subjective self (compare "Sailing to Byzantium" where a ritual holy fire permutes man's heart into its final perfection).

What does Yeats mean? He sees his own period in history as the first one to preoccupy itself, in art, in psychology, in philosophy, in the novel, with a portrayal of how man perceives his world without the accompanying belief that this perception embodied any external reality. Man has ceased to be able to construct intelligent hypotheses about "objective" reality; his theology and even his science have been revealed as arbitrary hypotheses. Yeats was not merely criticizing from the outside; he realized that he too was the victim of emotions hampered by uncertainty--therefore his need to create a system, and therefore also its strangely non-evaluative nature, its attempt to include all emotions and events. He asserted the "formal" or mathematical nature of his reality because no other was possible. At this stage of the cone, those who see truly are the most aware of subjective reality; therefore, unlike the stupid or selfish "worst," for them to act with "passionate intensity," to follow only one idea or belief, would be dishonest and narrow minded. These "best," like Yeats, see everything by contraries, so that each truth entails its exact opposite and prevents action.

Notice the image of the sea of blood, drowning all of civilization's monuments to innocence and order. Since all has degenerated into anarchy, we await any  portent of change--some new revelation must be gathering itself together from the "formless darkness." The revelation at the end of each cycle is always religious, the union of man once more with the irrational supernatural--since Christ came at the beginning of the cycle and foretold his reappearance, this should be a "Second Coming."

The new embodiment of man-god, the sphinx, arises from the Egyptian desert, another source of mystery religions. It is irrational, unfathomable, pitiless, and stupid--the incarnation of brute force and unconscious energy. Perhaps it is Yeats' ultimate symbol of religion-as-irrational political power-as-irrational. Since the last incarnation was of a man who preached compassion and charity, this beast, his contrary, seems the incarnation of blind hate, ugliness, and formless darkness. It arises from the Spiritus Mundi, that is, it forces itself upon him out of the shared consciousness of all men--the "spirit of the world" has decided that this is the appropriate time to send forth the image of the Beast. Like the seas of blood and unlike the golden bird, this is not an image which Yeats would have chosen with his conscious mind. The desert bird (rational, objective beings) reel back from this apparition of subjectivity with horror; all that can be seen of them is their shadows.

The images are clear but the places where they occur--for example, "somewhere in sands of the desert"--are indefinite, a typical characteristic of dreams. The beast has been asleep for 2000 years during the ascendancy of Christianity, and the spirit of the "rocking cradle," its contrary, has increasingly vexed it until finally (still in pre-natal trance) it arises to assume complete control of the new cycle. Yeats disliked Christianity, which he felt placed a curb on the subjective or individual nature of men, but he saw the new cycle, founded on complete subjectivity, as an even more horrible distortion, the total unleashing of the terrible and irrational forces in man's nature. Some things are unclear--if all the cycles are symmetrical, how can one be worse than the next? Why isn't the beast the exact analogue of Dionysus in the first historical cycle? etc.

This is a good example of a poem whose effect does not depend on much knowledge of Yeats' theories, but on his ability to present stark emotions and images of horror--the antichrist returning through the desert to be reborn, the sea of blood unloosed, the cradle vexing the beast through two centuries of rocking. The theories provide Yeats with a method of rendering his images more definite and precise, as well as associating them with much mythological and historical cause and effect. They may perhaps be thought of as stage directions for a play--they are not in themselves significant, but aid in the creation of dramatic effect. A poem about a sphinx walking to Bethlehem, by itself, could seem silly or overblown.

There is another treatment of "The Second Coming" in Ellman, The Identity of Yeats, pp. 257-260, more generalized but perhaps also more interesting than this.

Yeats and Contemporary Thought

Yeats is less obscure when studied in the context of turn-of-the-century and early twentieth century European assumptions. He seems to codify and embellish many beliefs that were fairly commonplace among intellectuals of his day; for example, several historians were concerned with proving that history operated according to grand cycles of progress and decline, which recurred perpetually and therefore produced neither permanent progress nor decay. Anthropologists and psychologists attempted to explore the newly defined "unconscious" and, under the impetus of Freudian hypotheses, the interrelations of dreams, primitive ritual, and myth. Yeats' belief that dreams, symbol, and myth are related, and that all embody the deepest human experience, would have been consistent with contemporary assumptions.

Also his emphasis on the violent and angry aspects of man's character was a typical response to revelations concerning the irrational and suppressed nature of many human drives. A fear of mob rule combined with the glorification of power was indulged in by many prominent writers, most notably Nietzsche (philosopher), D.H. Lawrence (novelist), and Ezra Pound (poet, critic). Even Yeats' theory that individual and historical cycles existed in parallel form was one which social and biological scientists were considering--there was still the possibility that cultural evolution might proceed through mechanisms analogous to those of biology. Freud, for example felt his theory of sexual development and repression explained not only the development of individual personality but the development of religion and of civilization.

Freud and Yeats were not the only constructors of universal systems--Nietzsche, Lawrence, Jung, and others elaborate mythologies. Nietzsche's system contained an elaborate opposition between Dionysian art, the result of primitive energies, and Apollonian or formally measured art; it is exactly the opposition which Yeats uses in "Two Songs From a Play." Several writers had propounded the theory that a work of art is a "mask" or opposition to the character of the writer, and there was much emphasis on the "double" or divided self (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as a literary figure--all this anticipates Yeats' emphasis on the dramatic mask as the necessary opposition to the self and on the necessity of contraries in art and life.

Yeats and the Theories of Carl Jung

The correspondence between the theories of Yeats and those of Jung is remarkable. Jung was a psychologist and dissenter from Freud's system whose theories emphasized the religious and symbolic nature of the unconscious-- he saw purpose and artistic form in basic psychological patterns, and appealed both to students of literature and persons who did not like Freud's heavy emphasis on sexuality and the purposelessness of much human conduct. Jung published several works before Yeats' system was completely developed; Yeats could easily have heard of his theories even if he did not read the actual work.

Correspondences

  • both interested in man not as rational thinker but as creator of central symbols or archetypes; both had a theory of "spiritus mundi" with particular qualities assigned to the symbols produced by people of a certain nationality--Yeats, for example, believed in something very close to an "Irish soul." Both were interested in myth and the history of primitive peoples.
  • both felt man's symbols tended towards the artistic and religious
  • both had a theory of contraries or polarities--man/woman, introvert/extrovert and felt each person must accept both poles of his nature. Jung even used the word persona, the word for a dramatic character, to describe the external roles assumed by the self--compare Yeats' theory of the need for a willed mask.
  • both feared democracy, unleashing of mob, felt society was moving toward impending catastrophe and dissolution.
  • both used bird, wheel, circle, hero, and old-wise-man among the symbols;
  • both were interested in Asian thought and symbology.
  • both saw parallelism between the history of each individual and that of nations.
  • both had a "four stages of life" theory of human development.
  • both saw man as essentially religious, directing himself towards a purpose ("teleological" interpretation of events).

The only major tenet of Yeats' theories for which there is no analogue in Jung seems to be the theory of historical cycles.